Each year, nutritional research discovers more about the chemistry of food and the intricate ways in which it is utilized by the body to keep us healthy and strong. Only in recent years have we begun to understand fiber and the important role it plays in preserving our health. Researchers have observed that the fashionable, highly refined diet of the West that has become so popular over the years is often lacking in this necessary element. As a result, they have seen a corresponding increase in health problems, particularly relating to colon disease.
Many Diseases Linked to Low-Fiber Diet
Constipation, colon cancer, diverticulitis, varicose veins, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and hardening of the arteries are a few of the common conditions that are suspect as having a correlation to the fiber intake. Second only to lung cancer in incidence, each year approximately 155,000 cases of cancer of the large bowel are diagnosed in the United States. Approximately 93 percent of these cases occur in men and women over the age of 50. It has been observed that dietary fiber, largely found in fruits, vegetables, and bran, appears to have a protective effect. When populations of people who eat diets high in fiber were studied, they were found to have many fewer incidents of colon problems. Some researchers believe that one of the most beneficial results of a high fiber diet is that there is a much shorter transit time than there is with a diet of highly refined food, thus cutting down on the time that carcinogens are in contact with the colon.
High Fiber Usually Means Less Calories
Another benefit of a diet high in fiber, especially for those who desire to lose weight, is its relatively low caloric value. Fiber, often referred to as roughage or bulk, is found only in plant foods. Because humans lack the enzymes to digest fiber, it characteristically passes through the digestive system without being digested and absorbed into the blood stream. Reducing the volume of concentrated foods in the diet—meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, and eggs—as well as refined foods, which contain no fiber, and increasing the intake of natural, unrefined foods, will provide a larger volume of food with a decreased concentration of calories. Practically speaking, because fiber cannot be digested, the more fiber a food has, the fewer calories it will contain.
Blueberries, for example, have one-tenth of the calories of chocolate bars, ounce for ounce. This means that you could eat ten ounces of blueberries compared with one ounce of chocolate to get the same number of calories. For the same calories that you would get from one doughnut, you could eat ten cups of popcorn!
Eating the higher fiber foods means that you will chew longer, eat a larger volume, and therefore tend to feel more filled and satisfied on far fewer calories than might otherwise be expected. Such a revitalized diet, combined with a regular fitness program, can play a significant role in resolving a person’s weight problem.
Solves the Problem of Irregularity
In recent years, a whole segment of industry has developed producing products to relieve constipation. Many of these products help to increase the quantity of fiber ingested as an effective way to promote regularity. People with chronic constipation are generally benefited by increasing the fiber in their diets. It should be noted, however, that people often think of themselves as being constipated because they do not have bowel movements on a regular basis. If, however, they eat low-fiber foods, there is actually very little waste, and this is the reason for the apparent irregularity. People, who for years have been unable to achieve regularity, have been able to eliminate the need for laxatives by just adding more fiber to their diets.
Dieting Increases the Need for Fiber
Those who are dieting generally decrease the volume of food that they eat. Under such circumstances, constipation can very quickly become a problem for most dieters. By eating high-fiber foods, they can maintain or actually increase their total volume of intake while cutting down on calories, thereby avoiding this problem.
While cooking reduces some nutrients in food, especially vitamins, it does not reduce the fiber content. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, there is 1 gram of fiber in 100 grams of raw carrots. The same amount of cooked carrots still has 1 gram of fiber.
It is good to remember, however, that you do lose vitamins in cooking, which is why many people steam their vegetables.
The most common problem that people experience when they change to a higher fiber diet is an increase in “gas.” This full, bloated feeling usually goes away in a few days, but if it does not, it may help to cut back a bit on the fiber intake and then slowly increase it. Most health food stores have products available that assist in eliminating this problem.
Remember, also, that fiber absorbs water as it passes through your body. It would be well, therefore, to increase the amount of water that you drink as you increase your fiber intake.
Fiber in the diet is nothing new. Our great-grandparents lived on diets that were naturally very high in fiber. Even today, in lesser-developed countries, the diets tend to be higher in fiber content. As people become more affluent, a larger portion of their food supply tends to consist of meat, fat, and dairy products. At the same time, fewer bean dishes and ethnic foods are being eaten, all of which are naturally high in fiber.
While fruit juices may be a fairly concentrated source of vitamins, and certainly taste good, they do not have the fiber that occurs naturally in the fruit itself. Tomato juice, on the other hand, retains a higher level of pulp and is, therefore, a reasonably good source of fiber.
While most high-fiber foods tend to be lower in calories, it should be remembered that there are exceptions to this general rule. Nuts, olives, and peanuts are all high-fiber foods but are also quite high in naturally occurring fat and calories and should, therefore, be eaten in moderation. Nut butters retain the fiber but can also be a concentrated source of calories and fat. It is wise to always read the labels on nut butters, as many of them have fat and sugars added. Jam, which does not have a fat content but is a high source of fiber, can also be high in calories.
In choosing foods, there are a few rules that generally apply and are good to remember. Meat, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy products, and eggs all share one thing in common—they have no fiber. Also, juices, oils, margarine, pasta, white bread, and most pastries have very little or no fiber content. However, these foods are generally a concentrated source of calories.
Always Read Labels
It is wise to always read the labels on any store-bought baked goods. Be sure that it indicates that whole flour was used, not just wheat flour. Remember, too, that you cannot tell how much fiber a bread contains by its color. Various things are added to bread that can contribute to its dark color, including raisin juice, caramel coloring, and artificial dyes, making it appear to be whole grain, but these ingredients do not add fiber.
Some people equate crunchy with fiber. While this is a natural assumption to make, it is not a valid one. French bread can have a crunchy crust, but it is still white bread and has no more fiber than regular white bread.
Good Sources of Fiber
For those who are interested in assuring themselves of an adequate fiber intake, there are two food groups, in addition to fruits and vegetables, that should find a prominent place in your meal menu—cereals or grains and legumes.
Beans, like most other high-fiber foods, are inexpensive and an excellent way to add fiber to the diet. Many ethnic foods are made from beans. A good start to your new menu might be to add bean dishes, such as tacos with refried beans, or even soup that includes beans. Garbanzo beans added to salad will increase its fiber value. Though beans do create an objectionable amount of gas for some people, there are products available that will generally take care of this problem.
Wheat bran can be added to many foods to increase the fiber content. Try adding it to homemade granola or cookies, or even sprinkling a little on a salad.
Not All Fiber Is the Same
Not all fiber is the same. The fiber found in bran is different from that found in vegetables. Although bran fiber will help with constipation, the fiber found in vegetables and beans helps the body to manage fats and cholesterol in a healthful way.
While they can be expensive when not in season, topping your cereal with fresh fruits will increase the fiber content. Strawberries and raspberries are good sources of fiber. Raisins are a good source of fiber, and if they do not come in the cereal box, try sprinkling a few on top of your bowl of cereal. Though somewhat lower in fiber value than berries, bananas and applesauce also contain fiber.
There are a number of other side benefits to eating many of the high-fiber foods. A University of Kentucky study has shown that eating a cupful of cooked beans a day lowers blood cholesterol levels by an average of ten percent! Other research suggests that regular servings can improve the ratio of good to bad cholesterol by 17 percent.
While providing a fiber that helps to lower the risk of several forms of cancer, beans have the benefit for diabetics of having been shown less likely than rice or bran cereals to raise blood glucose levels. At the same time, beans provide a rich source of iron, magnesium, and zinc, which make them a good choice for someone who is cutting back on meat.
In a study conducted by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, volunteers who ate seven ounces of carrots a day for three weeks saw their cholesterol levels fall an average of 11 percent. Other research has shown that the higher levels of beta-carotene in the blood stream also help to prevent heart attacks. And, by protecting cells from damage, beta-carotene and other antioxidants may reduce the risk of lung tumors and other forms of cancer.
In addition to providing a source of fiber, apples are loaded with pectin, a water-soluble fiber that can help lower cholesterol levels. Studies suggest that another benefit of eating apples is that pectin-rich foods may also act to lower the risk of colon cancer.
The best longevity advice is very clear. By increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, you will not only add valuable fiber but you will be eating foods that are loaded with substances that actively fight cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.